FIFA 192

Posted by Rushian on October 20, 2005, 08:33:13 PM

Today we bring you a chapter from the book FIFA 192. It's the true and very funny story of a Scouser, steeped in the culture of Shankly, Paisley and the Kop who a long way from home, falls in with the Brunei Royal family and their hapless football team, the eponymous Fifa 192. Written by RAWKite "Stanley Park" it follows his travails as the Brunei team's media manager and is set amongst the alien cultural maelstrom of a near-bankrupt and comically corrupt Islamic despotism. 

Chapter V: Rude by Nature

Owing more to the role model of Top Cat than Richard Branson, at the dawn of my Borneo blitzkrieg I decided to make the Brunei Sheraton my business HQ. Toothbrush top pocket, I was relaxing poolside when Dave joined me. Tired of two weeks of fried fish and rice à la filipina, always eaten in the company of the two flea-bitten strays and several itinerant labourers, the comfort of Brunei’s only commercial four-star hotel was increasingly appreciated. I was there from eight in the morning till eight at night before tackling the Tutong road, the water buffaloes and, most depressingly of all, the single-bed mattress. Guy’s burning eyes and deep sighs made the decision to stay off limits the sensible thing to do. Boring but sensible. I wanted to remain a good ‘sir’, even if I was an ‘ex-sir’.

That morning the front page of the Borneo Bulletin caught my eye. What now? The Sultan’s new titah on halal chicken farming in the state? Coca-Cola declared haram once again? Or maybe a national emergency had been declared on account of a price hike in green food dye? Pandan cake-lovers to revolt? This morning’s headline, like every other before it, was non-news. Until, that is, I read it.

“Are you okay? What’s the matter?” asked Dave.

I couldn’t speak. I was even hotter and sweatier than the king of the sweat gland sitting opposite me. Now I couldn’t breathe, I was choking.

“Have you had too much coffee?” he persisted. “Gives me palpitations, it does. ’Ere, get some water down yer.”

I jumped up, chest banging. I tried to run but hadn’t the strength. Fight or flight, I’d just roll over and die there and then. Water, water… I grabbed an ice-cold jug of it and necked it down in one. I stuck the glass against my cheek and breathed in deeply, loudly.

Slowly, very slowly, I recovered sufficiently to speak. I grabbed another jug of water. “Read that headline and then tell me to relax.”

“Illegal Publications: Police Step Up Search,” he announced with Black-Rod authority.

“Go on, don’t stop there.”

“The chief superintendent of police, Pengiran Haji Awang Yussoff bin Pengiran Haji Mohamad Sharum…”

“Stuff the names, man, or we’ll be here all day. Just get to the meat of it!”

“Blah blah blah…has asked the Brunei public for their assistance in bringing to justice illegal journalists-cum-publishers who have been approaching Brunei’s leading companies for sports sponsorship. It has come to our attention, said the commissioner, that these people have entered the country illegally without the necessary work permits and professional credentials. Members of the public are kindly ask to call the police if they have any information which may lead to the capture of…”

“I’m a wanted man. They all but put my mug-shot in there.’

“Could be anyone. No mention here of Stanley Park or Brunei Buzz.”

“What? Sports magazines on sale at biggest events? How many fans turn up to tennis or badminton here? Or maybe the Bruneian top-spinning world cup has led to a rush of illegal journalists beating a fuckin’ path.”  Who’d dobbed me in? Pengiran Ali Abbas or The Charitable Empire? Pengiran Ali was the obvious choice but had Chuck Norris got wind of my letters to the charities commission, teachers’ union, commission for racial equality, local MP, not to mention the education minister herself. Was this a pre-emptive charitable strike? Did they know I was back, hell-bent on justice and retribution, giblets and Jihad?

"Don’t worry, have a word with Yussoff,” said Dave. “He’ll sort you out.”

Dave called the Sultan’s banker and Brunei’s team manager. Pengiran Yussoff  was Brunei’s gold standard for conscientiousness and honesty. From a population of 350,000, he was one of a handful where your trust was never misplaced. He tried to be dapper but his penchant for pulling his trouser belt up over his stomach imbued him with friendly familiarity, irrespective of the expression he was wearing. Only very rarely did he allow himself a smile. Mixed or campur, there was Chinese blood in him somewhere which made his lofty status all the more surprising and commendable. He ran the Brunei team from his tiny office at the bank.

“PY, Dave ’ere. Our Stanley’s got a bit of a problem, or so he seems to think.” I grabbed the phone, increasingly paranoid given Dave’s grinning. Booth, friend or foe?

“PY, have you seen this morning’s Bulletin?” I asked.

“I’ve only read the back page.”

“Well look at the front page now”

Silence, then the long breath of the inconvenienced.

“Leave it to me. I’ll make a couple of phone calls. It looks like PA is up to his old tricks again. Just lie low and stay away from the airport and ferry terminals.”

“Jesus! It’s for real then?”

“Watch your step. PA’s cousins all work at immigration.” The word ‘cousins’ was as good as saying all the Broons were out to get me.

Jerudong might sound more exotic than Wormwood Scrubs, but nobody knows exactly what goes on inside Brunei’s only house of incarceration. A couple of times I’d seen the new intake of prisoners manacled together inside RIPAS hospital while waiting for their check-ups. Barefoot, shaven heads, dirty, malnourished…and all this before they’d set foot inside a cell. Torture was rumoured to be regularly practised there, not to mention accidental deaths and mysterious disappearances. Once in Jerudong, you were no more, gone and forgotten as the world’s longest-serving political prisoner could testify. He’d had enough of being banged up for twenty years, therefore recanted and absolved his sins by swearing devotion and undying love to the Sultan and was promptly given the keys to freedom. Free-thinking be it political, religious or economic was never to be tolerated and so it followed that crime, like sin and entrepreneurial verve, did not exist in Brunei’s unique MIB paradise; if you transgressed, you simply ceased to be.

“Oh, just one thing before you go,” added Yussoff. “Have you got a work permit?”

“You know I haven’t’,” I snapped. “I asked you for a quota in your name six months ago.”

Dave raised his eyebrows and seized the mobile phone.

“Er, he seems a little excitable at the moment P.Y. I’ll speak to you later.” The Brunei coach turned to me, shoving the mobile back into my hand. “I wouldn’t upset Yussoff like that if I were you. He’s probably the only man who can keep you out of nick.” His laughter was not infectious.

“You’re enjoying this, aren’t you?”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

“You’re a fuckin’ nutter. You never play the consequences game, do you? It’s a fuckin’ liability knowing you. My balls are hanging out there every Saturday night and if we lose who gives a toss but me? One wrong word from you or any other fuckin’ smart-arse with a notepad and they start building bonfires for the coach…. same anywhere in the world. Pressure, it’s about time you shared some of it, son.” He looked bitter and twisted before checking himself a little.

An awkward silence was finally broken by a half-apologetic, “…but I tell you what, you and your magazine have brought my team luck.”

“Very reassuring. If you want a fuckin’ rabbit’s foot go and buy one. I’ve got a wife, four kids and no visible means of support apart from you and your fuckin’ crap football team you…you…you fuckin’ newsagent! How are Brunei going to win games with you… battle cry of ‘packet of fags and a Daily Mirror, guv’?”

He sat rigid, staring the Booth stare. The door from the restaurant to the pool opened and an assorted selection of Brunei bumis and expat orang putehs found a table. The ginger beard of Christopher Charles Norris gleamed in the sun as he cajoled and joked with the bumiputera, ‘sons of the soil’, representatives of the ministry of education. Bumi, Malay-speak for ‘Us, the chosen race of Brunei-Malays’. He looked over and recognised me but gave no sign of acknowledgement. He twitched his nose; he could smell the desperation. He smiled, the confidence of a country manager of the Charitable Empire; the Brunei consul, he’d look great in a Roman soldier’s uniform of breastplate, short skirt, plumed helmet. He was sure to be there at my crucifixion. His uniform today was more suited to the cultural climate: a formal Malay-style black silk shirt, rounded stiff-collar, no tie. Beneath the shimmering black protruded his ample beer gut.

My conversation with Dave at a chilly end in the Tropics, I hurried out to the car park via the pool-side exit.

I was lucky that week. A far juicier story for the front page soon adorned the Bulletin’s front page. The sultanate was to host a major English Premier outfit but the rumours failed to identify the team, only hinting that it was London-based. A Kuala Lumpur sports management company had reinvented my wheel. Their main man almost looked the part, an Indian Malaysian in a light tan suit and crisp shirt. Ratnam’s chain smoking, unhealthy pallor and furrowed brow gave the game away. This was his biggest chance of making a fast buck and he was clenched-arsed determined not to blow it. The Indian’s Bruneian partners gave him good cause to be nervous. A cigar-puffing Brunei construction mogul, and a skinny, elongated Chinese anorexic renowned for slippery handshakes and spewing on deals. Who was in the pipeline then? Arsenal or Tottenham? This was to be a strictly commercial venture without a whiff of royal money. Would it come to pass?

Pengiran Matussin’s broad grin told me all I needed to know. On May 20th, a day after the 1997 English F.A. Cup Final, a BAFA meeting was hastily arranged by Matussin to discuss the arrangements for Brunei hosting the English F.A. Cup Winners, Chelsea.

From the moment of first contact, the omens surrounding the proposed visit were not good. Chelsea had been forced to cancel one of their s.e. Asian venues, the Kuala Lumpur game, due to ‘logistical’ problems. Could the game be transferred from KL to Brunei at one week’s notice? Man and boy, Matussin had supported the Fancy Dans of the King's Road all his life, or at least ever since David Webb scrambled the winner against Leeds United in the 1970 F.A. Cup Final replay at Old Trafford. He had studied in London in the Seventies and Stamford Bridge had become his second home (“together with the snug of the King George,” he also let slip). Pengiran Matussin had the gift, the knack of making people like him. In the highly unlikely event of Brunei ever becoming a democracy, he’d get my vote. You knew you could trust him, he rarely let you down, but when he did it was done with such panache that you soon forgave.

He was heaven-sent for Brunei football. With a ‘No Entry’ sign over politics in the sultanate, football was the only route for people of ambition. It attracted the best, Matussin, and the worst, Pain In The Arse Pengiran Ali. The Indian was now trying to convince everyone around the table of his noble intentions of promoting the world game in Brunei.

“Seven point five per cent of gate receipts to BAFA, sixty-five per cent to Chelsea and…”….lovely teeth, lovely smile… “twenty-seven point five to the promoters,” he beamed.

“That would be you?” I asked.

“Er, yes.”

“And only seven point five of gate receipts go to BAFA?” I waited for Matussin to come in with the counter. He didn’t.

“That’s fine, fine, Ratnam. Seven point five is okay by me.” Matussin was clearly determined to have this game at whatever cost. I wouldn’t be surprised if he subbed it from BAFA funds. “This really is a great opportunity for Brunei Darussalam to get on the world stage. I’ll contact Star Sports and ESPN to see if they can get footage on air throughout Asia.” The talk of a deluded lover.

“And what do you think, Stan?”

“If it comes off, great. My professional interest revolves around the question of whether there’s a souvenir magazine or not?”

“Of course, of course,” answered Ratnam. “And what do you have in mind?”

“Well, who’s sponsoring the game, for a start?”

“We have almost forty sponsors already, all the biggest companies in KL and Brunei.”

“Forty? Very impressive. Why would KL sponsors be interested in a game between Chelsea and Brunei when the game in KL has just been cancelled?”
He licked his lips. “Logistics.”

“How much would you charge for a magazine?”

“What would you suggest?”

Ten dollars sounded fine to me but I knew the Bruneian punters would boycott anything in excess of three otherwise ‘Bloodsucker’, the one English word always pronounced perfectly by the locals, would be ringing in my ears.

“Well, it depends on the content and the input from my graphics department.” A laptop and fifty clipart cartoons, my publishing house. “Will I have complete autonomy?”
He paused for thought as if he didn’t know the meaning of my final word.

“No, we will talk with Chelsea to see what they want in the programme. You are our ‘advisor’.”

I’d seen this before in Brunei. Do all the phoning, all the typing, all the lay-out, all the graft, work your balls off and have the self-satisfaction of a job well done in nigh-on impossible circumstances and then get paid next-to-nothing. The curse of the non-Bumi, the foreigner, the outsider in racially charged Orang Melayu Bumiputera country. For freelancers, if you weren’t a ‘son of the soil’, you got soiled. I’d heard enough. I’d led a charmed life in Brunei only through grace, favour and gut instinct. Involvement in this caper would end in tears for me.

“Well if that’s the case, Ratnam, I’m out,” I said. I was kissing goodbye to three dollars a programme multiplied by possibly ten thousand sales. What the hell, I’d just staved off a heart attack by walking. And besides, I’d never liked Chelsea.

“But Stanley, we need your expertise on how to….”

“It’s okay, ask Chelsea to supply all the details. If you want any info from me I’m more than happy to give you some recent issues of Buzz.”
Pengiran Matussin glared across at me.

“I’m sure we will have Stan’s full co-operation in helping with the media coverage in other respects.” I was the lone dissenting voice. Maybe my judgement was clouded by the fact that Chelsea had knocked The Reds out of the F.A. Cup in the fifth round that year. “This game will be the making of Brunei football.” Pengiran Matussin was clearly determined to have his day.

It was getting late. I’d had my fill of dreams, especially other people’s. I left before midnight as Matussin was discussing the press conference which would announce and promote this game to the unsuspecting world of football.

Chelsea flew into Brunei three days before the event, which was scheduled for the last Saturday in May. The English F.A. Cup winners to play in the sultanate one week to the day after winning the oldest cup competition in the world. Over three thousand fans were waiting to greet them off the plane direct from London. I looked around the heaving mass of excited Bruneians, at least half of whom seemed to be wearing the red of Liverpool or Man Utd. Chelsea was a start, I rationalised. My day would come.

Ex-Brunei gaffer Mike Lyons was passing through Brunei and he was due to return to his new base in Australia only half an hour before Chelsea touched down. He looked depressed. This was his team hosting the F.A. Cup Winners; he’d got the ball rolling with his up-and-at-them style, his indomitable love and enthusiasm for the game.  He seemed to realise now he’d left too soon.

“Don’t forget to say hello to Eddie.”

“Eddie who?”

“Eddie Niezwicki. He was the goalkeeping coach at Everton when I was first team coach there. He’s a good lad.” Notwithstanding his ability to inflict great physical damage as a player, Mike seemed to adore and be adored by half the footballers in Britain. Best mates from Torquay to Carlisle. He’d never let go of his playing days; he couldn’t. He had been pacing the airport concourse, fists clenched, square shouldered, as if he half-expected a corner-kick to be knocked in from the car park.

“Well what do I say to him?” I wasn’t warming to this at all. Stranger greets Chelsea goalkeeping coach from flight to pass on salutations ad nauseam. What’s worse, I had my trusty bright yellow anorak packed in case of rain. I still had some pride left.

“Look, Mike, can’t you hang on to have a chat yourself.”

“Can’t, got to get back to sort Canberra’s finances out. Oh, and say hello to the physio, Glynn Williams. Crap player but good lad.”

Canberra’s finances? Did John Howard’s Liberal government rely on Mike for advice on how to run the Australian economy? God help them. In Brunei, Mike’s barbecues on the beach had superceded his football exploits. He’d cook a whole lamb in a sand-pit oven, Kiwi Hangi style, and the idea was that he’d charge the mob of expats who turned up a fiver a head to cover food and drink. Once he’d donned the chef’s hat and the beer started to flow, without fail he forgot to pass the hat around.

In the twilight of his playing career ‘Mick’ (as Everton fans knew him) was summoned into Howard Kendall’s office for a friendly chat to discuss his transfer to Sheffield Wednesday; all that remained was for personal terms to be agreed upon. “You’re worth double what we’ve been paying you over the years,” said Kendall. “Sheffield know that and are prepared to double your money overnight if you sign for them.” Goodison Park’s directors had long before realised that Mike would have paid Everton to don the royal blue shirt. “The Toffees”, the clubs’s nickname, came from Barker and Dobson’s famous Everton mints. Some people prefer the term ‘humbugs’.

As it had done for him as a player, Everton’s club motto nil satis nisi optimum - ‘nothing but the best’ - would always hold true for Mike wherever he ended up. When he talked football you knew that he still dreamed he might feature in Everton F.C.’s ambitious plans for the future. Almost single-handedly he’d kept the club in the top flight during their frequent lean spells in the Seventies. Shankly had commented that he wanted to sign him as a youngster but the imposing centre-half, who started his career as a centre-forward, was certain to fail the medical. Colour blindness is a costly affliction in football, especially on Merseyside. Just ask any other Croxteth De La Salle lad who signed at sixteen as a centre-forward. 

Brunei’s ex-catalyst, Everton’s ex-skipper (or Mr Lyon-Heart as the Echo always imaginatively described him for more than a decade of derbies) was now running for his flight, waving and smiling to the fans who still remembered his services to the national team. I was getting sick of soccer. There went Everton’s finest, the man who’d taken his home-team first-love to the Wembley final against Liverpool in 1989, now jetting off to save his floundering new club, Canberra Cosmos, in the Australian League. With Mike, football would always be succour and cancer in equal parts. He was lost without it. First Everton, then Sheffield Wednesday, now Brunei. He missed his family: eleven starters and three subs.

In the modern British game, there’s almost no idyllic pastures left for local-boy-made-good romantics like Michael Lyons. One day soon, he’ll be declared extinct in the land that gave the world football. In Brunei’s jungle landscape, he had the missionary zeal of Arnold Shwarzer with a number five on his back, propagating the New Testament to the indigenous people: “Don’t fanny around at the back! Get shut!”   

I took the photographs of the Chelsea players as they left the customs area and greeted them, accompanied by Pengiran Yussoff and Pengiran Matussin. They were clearly tired after their long flight, which obviously hadn’t been helped by several post-match celebrations. We followed the team coach back to the hotel and I grabbed a few words with Eddie Niezwicki.

“Why didn’t Mike stay?” he asked. “I’d have loved to catch up with him. Me, him and Darra had some great times together.”

“Yea, he’s a great lad, Mike.”

“And Darra, great lad Darra.”

“Darra, great lad, yeah.” Who?

Second-hand football reminiscences; I sympathised with football wives because I was beginning to feel like one. Dependent on the game for bread and butter but not really a part of it, not in the true sense. For the first time, my enthusiasm for what I was doing took a sharp dip with the arrival of the Blues. Maybe Mark Hughes’ second goal in the fifth round had left irreparable scars on my consciousness? It probably had more to do with Mike Lyons on his flight to football’s furthest missionary station deep Down Under. 

As expected, the royal sons were delighted to have sporting champions on their turf, their padang, even though they hadn’t lifted a finger or paid a cent to help the cause. Would their father ever give his eldest son the nod to own his own cheque book? Brunei’s bored-stiff population would certainly profit from this football match more than the Argentinian polo mercenaries whom the Sultan paid through the nose out at Jerudong Park. The morning of Chelsea’s first full day in Brunei, an invitation was delivered to Ruud Gullit to visit the Jerudong Istana courtesy of Princes Billah and Malik. 

Despite the collective hangover of travel and booze, the Chelsea players were in a good mood after their breakfast and jumped on the coach with cameras, shades and blue caps. All that bonhomie-on-demand and good-laddishness…  all that was missing was their mums asking if they’d remembered their packed lunches for the trip to meet the Brunei royal family.

“Don’t forget, Stan,” mithered Matussin, “I want good sharp photos of the players and their majesties. Anything sub-standard will not be tolerated by the palace censor.” The next Buzz magazine would be a bumper edition of palace tour, game and post-match reception. Five Brunei dollars worth at least. I got on the mobile and told Samli to meet the coach outside the palace gates. Typically, Dave had declined the invitation from Matussin to attend, saying he had to work hard that day with the Brunei players and so reminding the secretary-general what the Sultan actually paid Dave to do: coach footballers rather than swanking it. Booth had no time for royal protocol or anybody else’s for that matter; he always acted as he himself saw fit.

One of the game’s sponsors was a new Brunei supermarket that had recently opened. En route we were told the Chelsea players would visit and press the flesh of customers for twenty minutes, a fact of which only Matussin and Ratnam were aware. The Chelsea players groaned; all they wanted to do was to meet the Sultan of Brunei.

“I’m sorry gentlemen, this will be a very short diversion. We are expecting a large crowd and we can’t possibly disappoint so many Bruneians.” Ratnam sat down after speaking and took another indigestion pill. I couldn’t see him surviving until Saturday night’s kick-off. The coach stopped outside Liang Toon supermarket and as the Chelsea team descended they were devoured by the Rakyat. Hats were swiped, t-shirts pulled, autographs demanded. With no marshalling except from tiny Filipina check-out girls whispering for order, the scene quickly degenerated from bad to worse. Within five minutes of arriving, everyone was back on the coach. The Menace, naughty-boy midfielder Dennis, looked really threatening and less than sage-like. “One of those barstards 'as 'ad me fackin' Ray Bans away.” Eddie led him to the back of the coach, soothing and cajoling lest the errant skinhead be given detention. Why is it that with some footballer’s even their names manage to throw you a dummy? Our Dennis was as thick as a brick and apparently out to prove he was as hard as one too. I kept my distance. His bright blue eyes were as piercing as a Stanley knife.

To their credit, the other Chelsea players took the riot of adulation in their stride, smiling and waving and trying to sign autographs even when kids were grabbing the pens out of their hands. The coach took fifteen minutes to navigate the car park crowd and then finally we were all back on track for Jerudong Palace. Matussin led me down to the middle of the coach as we turned onto the coast road.

“Stan, this is Mathew from Chelsea Village Marketing. I think it would be useful if you two could get together and discuss a few business matters.” I shook the stranger’s hand and sensed he was not accustomed to sharing coach journeys with footballers. Bespectacled in young barrister fashion, I had him at early thirties; intelligent face, well disposed, and unlike David Mellor, very Cool Britannia for a Chelsea man. A few rows behind him sat The Menace, still effin’ and blindin’ over his stolen shades.

“I don’t think here is the time to discuss the Village plans for Brunei,” said Mathew. “I’ll try and grab a few words with you after the palace reception.” He flicked his head back to indicate the source of the postponement. “Purloined Ray Bans aren’t on my agenda.”

“Fackin’ Broon-Eye-Ans,” The Menace shouted, raising a few laughs among the Chelsea brethren. ‘We’ll give ’em a fackin’ good rumble in the jungle, eh, lads.” The voice of reason, the voice of wisdom, the voice of Chelsea’s skipper anno domini 1997.

We were greeted on the steps of the palace by Pengiran Yussoff, immaculate in Brunei traditional dress. Fortunately he couldn’t stick his long cara Melayu inside his high belt and as a result he cut quite a figure. I inspected his blue silk shirt. What appeared to be diamonds glistened in the equatorial sun.

“Are they for real?” I asked.

“A gift from His Majesty on the occasion of his 50th birthday.”
Yussoff was up there near the top, a good man to be on your side. Why couldn’t he have used his influence to get a proper English team out to Brunei?

He led us past a small pool into a reception room. Wurlitzer and Gaggia coffee in the corner, it had the look of a teenager’s den; a very rich teenager’s den.

“Hodgson, Stanley!” The droning Brummie tones of ‘ow-er’ Neil drifted over. I was relieved to see him as Matussin and Yussoff had both stiffened in manner since crossing the royal threshold. In stark contrast, Neil was jovial and relaxed, dressed as usual in white polo shirt and blue track-suit bottoms. “No-one around yet,” he whispered. “We’ll grab a boite and a drink before the office-yil welcome.”

Tables for four had been prepared and we were offered soft drinks and finger sandwiches by the royal staff. Neil and I headed for the table nearest to the Wurlitzer and we were soon joined by Gianlucca Vialli and two young players.

“Ciao, Stanley. Come stai?” The bald one was, as ever, smiling.

“Va bene, Lucca. Dove il principe?” That year teaching in Ancona in Italy’s Marche region, ordained for this precious moment in time.

“Il gabinnetto, penso io.” Ruud Gullit was still preening himself in the royal loo.
Neil introduced himself.

“I suppose yows’all used to all this then, Gianlucca, what with you being an Italian prince an all that, loike?”

“Only a prince?”  he asked with feigned indignity. Opposite us sat the two young Chelsea reserves.

“How’s it going, lads?” I tried to make the young hopefuls feel relaxed. “Do you reckon you’ll get on and play tomorrow?”

“Don’t see why not,” said the older of the two. “I played left back in the F.A. Cup Final last week.”

“Err, if you don’t moind me askin’ mate, who’s yow then?”

Lucca had to push away his food he was laughing so much. Neil finally made a lucky guess at Scott Minto and we had a good twenty minutes of football talk. The consensus was that all the Chelsea team and coaching staff (with the notable exception of one) were ‘good lads’ or ‘ragazzi bravi’. Minto was affable, good-humoured and didn’t take himself or anyone else too seriously. The fact that he was born on the Wirral six miles across the river from Hunts Cross had nothing to do with it. Another Red who’d slipped the net.   

The room suddenly fell quiet and there before us was the apparition of Prince Billah and Prince Malik, the younger dressed in the royal blue of a Chelsea replica shirt. “Bet he didn’t have to pay forty fucking quid for it,” Neil murmured.

The dreadlocked Chelsea manager, shiny black locks permed into a cascading rasta-mass, emerged from the loo to make a bee-line for Billah and embraced him warmly. They were long-lost friends or so it seemed. The Chelsea players stood up and followed suit with firm handshakes and smiling pleasantries and then we were all led out across a sunny courtyard, past a badminton court to the Jerudong Palace games room. It crossed my mind that dirty rascal Prince Jefri’s pleasure dome would perhaps prove more interesting than Billah’s snooker tables now before us.

The Chelsea players were ushered in and the Crown Prince invited one of the players to a snooker match. The prince was good enough to be a pro on the circuit, private lessons from Steve Davis having paid dividends. The players took it in turns to take shots but the prince stayed at the table most of the time, popping them down one by one. Mathew walked over and pulled me to one side.

“Now that things are a bit quieter, Stanley, I’d like to have that little chat.” He sipped on his orange juice served in a crystal champagne glass. “Chelsea Village want to take the team into the Asian market. You know who the richest sporting club in the world is, don’t you?

“Who doesn’t?” I groaned.

“Exactly. Now what we intend to do, and what I have to personally take responsibility for, is to launch our ‘brand’, if you will, in Asia. That’s really what this tour is all about. Play a few games, meet the people, create a good impression and sell the replica kit next season.”

“Smashing.” I knew straight away he was talking to the wrong man. Media and publicity apart, I still hadn’t any clout in BAFA and this would be long-haul intensive work which needed an efficient secretariat. There was certainly money to be made but not by me. And Chelsea, for God’s sake? My heart just wouldn’t be in it. I’d sold out once already by selling The Devil’s goods.

“Now Pengiran Matussin has told me that you have opened two souvenir shops inside the HB stadium, selling Man United and Liverpool memorabilia.”

“Yea, that’s right. We’re just ticking over at the moment but I took the executive decision only sell merchandise from those two clubs. That’s all the fans here want.”

“Yes, understood, that may be the case now. After our win last week and our ambitious plans for the future, we aim to make Chelsea as big a name in se Asia as Liverpool & Man Utd.”

“To tell you the truth, I think you’ve got your work cut out. Those teams have got a thirty-year start on you in terms of international exposure and they’re ten years ahead in marketing.” Typical bloody Southerners, Chelsea; one trophy in the cabinet and suddenly they’re world-beaters.

“Every long journey must start with the first step and last week gave us a head start over the others in the pack. Now what I’d like to do is to inspect your premises and have you sell our goods on a franchise basis.” More hours wasted trying to master Excel spreadsheets. Maybe I could do it without BAFA’s help after all but I needed a secretary, maybe two. Guy and Bilmah were about to be promoted.

“Smashing.”

“We’ll get together after the game and talk figures, yea?”

“Smashing.”

Stanley Park, purveyor of official Chelsea replica jerseys by royal appointment of His Majesty, the Sultan of Brunei. It made good business sense but aroused as much excitement in me as watching The Menace miss the pink, as he had just done.

“Will you be giving anybody the star treatment’” I asked. “You know, posters, key-rings, autographs?” Mathew nodded to the snooker table conspiratorially.

“Perm any one of two, at the most three. Not the skinhead, that’s for sure, even if he is club skipper. Little bit rough around the edges. No-one’s got the courage to tell him that he’s not David Beckham.”

After the snooker, which Billah had won to his own obvious delight, we moved as a flock, school-visit fashion, to view two contraptions that were raised on a small stage.

“Skiing machines in Brunei?” I asked Neil. “Bit hot for that out here isn’t it?”

“Bollocks, mate, virtual reality.”

Gullit and Vialli were, by chance or design, the first two who got up to don the space-age helmets and grip the control skis. Two royal aides assisted in giving instructions and then they were left to their own devices. Much to our amusement the two bumped into each other as they got into whatever virtual 3-D interactive show was revealing itself inside their helmets.

“Neil, does Prince Jefri have any of these at his place?” I asked.

“No, not that I know. Only the real thing is good enough for him.”

“Eccezionale! E Formula Uno di Monza,” shouted Lucca. As is usual for his gregarious race, the Italian wanted the world to join in with the fun and have a laugh.

Gullit remained focussed, concentrating on mastering whatever he was virtually doing. He took the helmet off and chose to share it only with Billah, who listened enraptured to his new-found friend’s account.

“Sono volante, sono volante. On the moon, on the moon!” screeched Lucca again, clearly having the time of his life. Uninvited, The Menace jumped up and seized the Italian’s helmet and console. The Menace started groaning, gyrating and pushing forward his hips.

“Take me, take me now, darlin’,” he sleazed.

Billah and Gullit were too engrossed in conversation to hear, but Prince Malik witnessed the show. A royal aide tried to lead the skinhead off the stage but he brushed him off. He started to pant, quickly, loudly, and ten seconds later gave throat to an orgasmic roar. The Chelsea players were laughing like the naughty schoolboys they were. His virtual lust satiated, The Menace took off his helmet and grinned, “Whose next for the bitch then?” Another player jumped up only to announce seconds later in bitter disappointment: “Fackin’ Red Arrows formation, innit. You bar-stard, Den!”

Gullit, Billah and Malik led everyone back to the Wurlitzer. The tables had been cleared and a buffet awaited us. Samli and I moved around taking photos as unobtrusively as possible. “You’ll have to leave the films here before you go,” an aide said, “and the palace will be in touch to tell you which ones you can use.”

“Smashing.”

After lunch each member of the Chelsea team was once again introduced first to Billah, then Malik, the Crown Prince placing an ornately wrapped giftbox in their hands. Click, flash, click, flash, click, flash thirty times. Another speech of welcome by Matussin and Yussoff, a vote of thanks by Colin Hutchinson, Chelsea’s club secretary… and nothing from the royals. They had graced us with their presence and in keeping with Brunei tradition nothing more should be expected.

The Chelsea players began opening their presents.

“No, not yet,” begged Matussin. “It is our custom to wait until you arrive home to see what you have received. This is not our way…please.”

It was too late. The rustle of wrapping paper filled the room as the Chelsea players tore into their royal gifts. I sat down close to Billah, intrigued by what he made of their behaviour. A couple of months earlier, the Sultan’s eldest son had celebrated the official announcement of his succession to the Brunei throne. For reasons known only to the Sultan, His Majesty had delayed the investiture for a number of years, causing private misgivings that his son was unsuited to assume the throne in the event of His Majesty’s abdication or untimely demise. Another Brunei rumour? Brunei would be in safe hands, those of a professional snooker hustler. I thought of Yussoff’s diamond-encrusted shirt and for the first time I realised I hadn’t been given a shirt-sized box. With a mixture of fear, envy and expectation, I watched the ever-jovial Lucca prize off the lid.

Out came a framed photograph of His Majesty Prince Billah The Crown Prince of Brunei Darussalam in bright yellow royal regalia, this his official portrait from the investiture ceremony. Lucca put it straight back in the box, careful to show no reaction. Billah and Malik made their royal exits to the forced smiles and dead hearts of bitter disappointment.

“Fackin’ clueless bar-stard” was heard in those now-familiar dulcet tones.

“Fackin dad’s the fackin’ richest geezer in the world and he gives us his fackin’ fot-o. You c*nt! You fackin’ useless Brunei c*nt!” Evidently Kant and his critiques on the universal principal of reason tormented this team captain, this wise leader of men.

With that grin of immature malevolence on his face, The Menace threw Prince Billah’s portrait into the centre of the room. Only Lucca and a handful of others kept their souvenirs. The team bus was forced to wait for Gullit who had been granted a private audience with their majesties. After handing over an autographed photo of himself to the son of The Richest Man In The World, the manager signalled that we were now permitted to leave the compound of Jerudong Park.

If only The Menace had decided there and then to leave Brunei by taxi, the anguish that lay ahead might have been spared us all.

Saturday morning and Pengiran Matussin was manic: The BAFA international press conference was at hand. Reuters, AP, DPA, Star TV, ESPN… not forgetting the local might of RTB and the Borneo Bulletin. This truly was Brunei football’s D-Day. I arrived an hour early in order to get the best seat. As I approached the Riverview Hotel’s function room on the second floor, there stood a familiar figure fiddling with his card-key to enter his room. Dreadlocks immaculate, skin glowing, attired in the best suit Savile Row afforded him; yes, it was the Dreaded Dutchman himself. He looked me up and down, a little defensively, maybe expecting me to take a quick snap. I carried on walking towards the function room and sat down. As I did I looked back down the hallway. He was fiddling with his key even though the door was now open. He looked quizzical at my fake ignorance of who he was. Pengiran Matussin ran in.

“Do you think this room is big enough? Only about twenty-five chairs. Is that microphone working? The light’s quite poor, isn’t it?” Still half asleep, I let him ramble on; I’d get no sense from him until the conference was under way.

“Bloody Hell, Stan, the phone hasn’t stopped ringing all morning. Are you awake?”

“Do you know who’s coming?”

“Too bloody many, that’s all I know. I just hope the hotel staff can manage the numbers.”

“Relax, everything will be fine, PM.” I yawned. 8.30am for a 9am start. I should still be in bed by rights.

Benny Ang, the new sports writer on The Bulletin, joined us. The national paper had at long last ditched the Sabah-based Ong in favour of a local sports journalist. A Chinese Bruneian, Benny had only recently graduated from Chester College. Still flushed with the excitement of watching the English Premier live at Old Trafford, on his return to Brunei he was red-hot keen and determined to do a professional job. He loved his football which could only be good news for the Brunei team. He was now gingerly feeling his way in as The Bulletin’s football expert. Dave Booth was next to walk in, hands in pockets, not a care in the world, seemingly unconcerned as to whether his over-achieving team were to play youth team reserves or World Cup champions. A friendly fixture, nothing at stake.

“Eh up, our Stanley. Eh up, our Benny. Where are they all?”

“Ask Matussin, it’s his gig.” I needed coffee and quickly.

As Dave was taking his place on the small stage, in walked Yussoff and the Dreaded Dutchman. A few steps behind, and an unexpected guest, Gianlucca Vialli. He had obviously come just to give a player’s account of the final. A nice touch, very gracious of him, the Prince of Torino.

Nine o’clock sharp. Matussin looked around the room. “We’ll just give the media another few minutes.” Fifteen minutes later, with hardly a word being uttered by anybody, he walked up on the stage and announced to the almost empty room: “Ladies and gentlemen of the press”

Dave stifled a laugh, but not well enough. Benny and I were still the only members of the paparazzi who had managed to fall out of bed for this one.

“It gives me great pleasure in welcoming Chelsea Football Club to Brunei Darussalam, The Abode of Peace, and I’d like to congratulate our esteemed guests for their magnificent performance in defeating Middlesbrough in the F.A. Cup final last week. Chelsea F.C., worthy F.A. Cup champions.”

I switched off, recognising the gestures and facial tics that betrayed that semiotic nightmare called ‘Brunei official welcome’. Guy entered my thoughts and I began to daydream. After a quarter of an hour, it was Pengiran Yussoff’s turn to speak.

“Thank you, Pengiran Matussin. And may I just add my congratulations to …..” More of the same. The minutes ticked by and still not having smelled coffee let alone had breakfast, I continued to doze. Benny was soon giving me a nudge. The room had become quiet.

“And once again, if any of you from the press would like to ask questions of Brunei’s esteemed guests….”

Still a bit unsure of himself in the new job, I knew Benny would bottle it, which is why he was now nudging me. One-on-one with first Ruud, then Lucca, he’d ducked out. I tried to rise to the occasion even though I still had to be convinced this game would be played. I cleared the throat and went for it.

“Ruud, welcome to Brunei. Gianlucca, welcome to you and congratulations on last week’s triumph. Could you tell me, Ruud, what it means to you personally to win the oldest cup competition in the world?”

The only previous press conferences I’d attended were with Dave leaning on his car in the stadium car park or over a Heineken back at his house. He was usually too emotionally spent to be social after a game and I liked to respect his privacy. With Mike Lyons we’d all drive down to the illegal-but-tolerated Brunei International Club after a game, get bevvied-up and usually try to forget the abject game of football we’d just watched. This get-together was very antiseptic, very polite, very nice. Very Kensington, Sloane or very Chelsea, actually. Ruud gave me my answer but I wasn’t really listening. And so it went for a couple of minutes, the Dutchman’s idiosyncratic mastery of the English language the only thing to impress. Gianlucca was sitting back, yawning. I was beginning to warm to my task.

“Did your four-two victory over Liverpool with that incredible second-half comeback lead you to finally believe you were on your way to the twin towers?” The purple prose of  Shoot; God, how I loved it. He smiled and gave the answer.

“Yes.”

“It was widely reported after the game, Ruud, that you claimed you could smell the fear of the Liverpool players when Mark Hughes was thrown on in the second half. What did you mean by that?”

The arrogant Dutch bastard. Our boys, afraid? Four, should’ve-been-five-but-for-Heysel European Cups, eighteen League titles …. Shankly, Paisley, Fagan, Dalglish… Souness… Evans? Hang on. Jason McAteer and Wash-and-Go shampoo? Unfortunately, he was probably right. That big tart Sporty Spice in a red shirt came to mind. She could have done a better job than our back-four that day. He answered but I’d seen the game myself live on TV. Gutless capitulation to one man who threatened to ruffle your hair a wee bit. It was about time Liverpool’s beautiful game got back to its roots, and not the follicular type. Would Tommy Smith or Ron Yeats bleach their hair and chose cream suits for the cup final? Jesus, what really was going on at Anfield? 

“In view of Liverpool’s surrender of that two-goal advantage, do you think that Roy Evans can motivate his men sufficiently to challenge for the Premiership more effectively next year?”

“I don’t know, I’m not Roy Evans.”

“If McManaman came on the market, would you put in a bid for him? Oh, and how highly do you rate the Liverpool man?”

“I’m always on the look out for good players.” Pengiran Matussin butted in.

“Ahm, Benny, maybe YOU might like to ask a few questions a little more pertinent to tonight’s game.” With the eyes of a startled rabbit, Benny stammered to get his words out. The Bull’s man would have to wait another day.

“Ruud,” I continued while acknowledging Matussin for his wise guidance, “what do you know about the Brunei team?”

“Nothing.”

“Have you ever heard of Brian Bothwell or Rosanan Samak?”

“No.”

“Do you have any idea of where Brunei are placed in the FIFA rankings?”

“No, but at a guess… the bottom.”

Dave had sat next to Ruud without exchanging a single word. His large frame bolt-rigid, his eyes darted to the right to rest on his Dutch adversary. For once the Brunei coach was not sweating. He looked pale, stony-faced. That stare. The Booth stare.

Ruud Boy was indeed an enigma. Film-star looks, obvious intelligence and God-given football skills had marked him as one of the all-time great footballers; why now should civility, good grace and sportsmanship be inversely proportional to his own stature and fame in a backwater like Brunei? Vialli sat there, unable to hide both his embarrassment and his disdain. Benny finally got his act together and continued the closed questioning: a few yesses and many no’s later, he too gave up.     

“Gianlucca, if I can turn to you,” I said. The Italian sprang up and beamed a winning smile. Bald but hairy with two or three days of growth covering his face, he owed more to the Magwitch of Dickens than the Prince of Torino. “Just how good is this Chelsea team?”

And then, in that pronounced and inimitable Italian way, he gesticulated and carved in stucco the beauty and grace of football. I was transported back in time to when I’d played semi-pro football in Italy during my teaching stint there. One game and I was dropped but a whole season of free Nastro beer and Quattro Stagioni. I was foot-loose young again, back in heaven.

“Davvero, eccezionale,” I said con gusto, hands waving before me of their own free will.  “Allora, per quale squadra inglese hai fatto tifo in Italia prima di Chelsea.” It came naturally, like the women, another time, another place. Italian, the most beautiful language in the world, it was still there after fifteen years. Giuliana, Paula, Antonella, Ornella…. andiamo a letto, ragazza. I’d been in Brunei for over seven years and could just about order breakfast in Malay. Teh tarik, mee goreng, mee rebus, mee ayam…. Ai, makan, makan. In Brunei, the lexicon for ordering greasy fried noodles far outweighed the language of love. ‘Make dinner not war’ was proudly inscribed on Brunei’s royal coat of arms. Lucca was now smiling regally.

“Ovviamente, mi e piacuto molto la squadra Liverpool-ese-ay,” he pronounced.

“Era fuori classe!” Era? I wondered why he eulogised Liverpool using the past tense. Still, he got the benefit of the doubt.

“Bene, molto bene” I cooed. “Benissimo.”

“Parli Italiano molto bene.” Now here was footballer.

“Grazie, mille.” Within one minute, his sheer charisma had transformed the press conference. He’d invited himself along simply because he’d had enough of his gaffer getting people’s backs up. A real class act, a real gentleman, Vialli was as smooth as a Gucci silk sock when compared to the functional wooden cloggie.

I liked Lucca. Why hadn’t we bought him from Juventus three years earlier?
RTB arrived unexpectedly to interrupt my new Italian friend while he was in full flow. Two cameramen ran in with the lights full on and in the face of the man whom they had been despatched to interview, the Dreaded Dutchman. Hajji Taha was his usual charming self, shoving the mike into the Chelsea coach’s face and demanding: “How many goals will Chelsea score tonight against Brunei?” Lights, action! Gullit laughed, his teeth glistened. “A lot I hope. We are here to win not to make friends. Well, no, we are here to win…ha ha… AND make friends and I think we will do both tonight.” His smile was broad, those big brown eyes a warm summer’s day. From Narksville to Hollywood in the glint of a camera light.

Unbidden he continued: “Brunei is a beautiful cown-tree and we have met main-ee wonderful people here, especially yesterday when we were kindly invited to the Jerudong Palace.” Taha tried to shift back to the game that night, but Gullit was in now full flow: “….and I have to say the hospitality has been incredible. The Brunei royal family… I am lost for words.”

“What do you know about the Brunei team?” asked Taha.

“They have a great reputation back home and Mr Booth their great coach was telling me a few moments ago that they’re doing exceptionally well in the FIFA rankings, a great improvement.”

“Habis!” shouted Taha. The camera lights were switched off and Gullit and the Chelsea contingent left immediately. Of their number only Gianlucca Vialli stayed in the room as the media evaporated.

“Oi! You! Taha!” The room shook at the booming voice. RTB’s sports producer froze. “Wouldn’t you like to know what the great Brunei coach has to say about the game tonight?” Dave’s tone didn’t invite discussion or dissent. The cameras were brought back, the lights switched on and incredibly Dave, for the first time ever, even nodded to approve make-up being dabbed onto his florid face. Moments later the cameras were rolling again. Taha’s English was word-perfect, if a little nervous.

“And now, Dave Booth, Brunei coach, can Brunei beat Chelsea tonight?” Dave inclined his head, apparently not hearing the question.

“Mr David Booth, Brunei coach, do you think Brunei will overcome Chelsea tonight?” Taha repeated. In the zone, Dave thought about it for a second or two before he gave his considered opinion.“No fuck-ing comment” he grunted. So saying, Dave Booth brought the international press conference to a somewhat abrupt end.

Half an hour before kick-off, I took Chelsea’s marketing guru, Mathew, to inspect my two commercial premises inside the stadium. Within the access perimeter next to a stairwell, a red fibreglass fascia had been bolted underneath the concrete terracing. Instant shop. Inside the man-made cave, eight grey filing cabinets and one glass display case were stuffed to overflowing with Liverpool FC and Manchester United souvenirs. One of the cabinets was empty. “How are we doing, Auntie Edith?” I asked the sales-girl breezily. Edith was somehow loosely related to Guy and must have been nudging sixty years-old. Bad teeth, long scraggy hair and painfully thin, once she’d remarked that she would always be smiling as long as she wasn’t living in The Philippines. “M.U. mugs sold out already?” I encouraged.

A bit late in the day, I saw now that the door of one cabinet was lying on the floor.

“Robbers, sir. Gone, sir.” Unlike Guy, Auntie Edith always called me ‘sir’.  I’d never heard the word on Guy’s lips before, to me or anyone else.

“What happened here?” asked Mathew.

“Stadium rats by the look of it,” I said. “Or maybe a few monkeys judging by the damage. It’s the restaurant downstairs. Big health risk. The smell attracts them, you know.”

“How much of the stock is damaged?”

“I’ll check with Guy, one of my secretaries, on Monday. It’s all inventoried. Not to worry.” Sensing panic in the air, Edith remained quiet.

“Equatorial climate won’t help either, I suppose,”Mathew offered. “Probably the coolest place for miles. I can really see the potential here, though. You’ll have to change the shop front of course, get a bit of blue and white in there, even things up a bit. Dear me, all that red! Believe me, we’re going to be as big as those two, maybe bigger. You wait and see.” His enthusiasm for his team was not infectious. “You really have got a captive audience, haven’t you?”

He was almost salivating at the possibility, the potential, the promise rather than the reality before him. I’d been the same once. The shops had made a few bucks but nothing on a grand scale. Customs had to be bought off, costly freebies given away generously when uniformed officials looked hungrily into the boxes. In addition the air freight charges were extortionate. Compared to the magazine, it was a lot of work for relatively little profit. Until I’d mastered Excel, I wouldn’t know exactly how little profit.

“I see what you mean about sales of MU gear,” Mathew said. “Look at these two dressed from head to foot in red and white.”

I followed his gaze to rest on Pengiran ‘The Snake’ Ali Abbas and the stadium’s head of security, Pengiran Hajji Omar. Red and white bobble hat, red and white scarf, red and white all over. Each had a stack of MU bed quilts under their arms, priced at over a hundred Brunei dollars each. Smirking, they looked over, challenging me, daring me.

“Samalam, encik. Enjoy the game, gents. Olé Brunei, eh?” I waved and then saluted the two biggest stadium rats on earth.

Smiling at them and again encouraging Auntie Edith for a job well done, I led Mathew back to the BAFA office. He was ebullient: “I think three or four hundred shirts would make a suitable first order and we’ll take it from there. But you really will have to buy some steel roller blinds. That’s the best way of keeping vermin out.”

“Smashing.”

What to do when the rats have the keys to every lock on the doors, storage cabinets, stadium… all the way up to Brunei Investment Agency? I suppose my loss was small when compared to the Rakyat’s; they’d been getting ripped off every day of their lives.

As is almost always the case with friendlies, the game was a complete non-event, the record books but nobody else recording a 6-0 win for Chelsea. Lucca scored two, the first gliding off his glistening, baby-oiled thigh, the second off his shaven head. What was significant was that the real entertainers on the night, the only ones who really knew what was (and more importantly, what wasn’t) at stake were the Italian trio of Lucca Vialli, Gianfranco Zola and Roberto di Matteo. They played like happy kids in the park, trying everything from halfway-line dips to overhead volleys to cheeky backheels. In the second half, the locals already trailing 5-0, Brunei’s Nordin mistimed his tackle and clattered into a Chelsea midfielder. The Chelsea bench were up in arms: “You fackin’ dirty bastard! Referee, he could have broken his leg.”

Retribution was instant, the rising talent of the Blues, his front teeth removed for the occasion, attempting a delicate head butt on the hapless part-time soldier, part-time footballer. He missed from half a yard but Nicholls poached a second to make it 6-0 on the night.

Dave shook his head at the treatment Nordin was being served up after his clumsy rather than malicious challenge. Next to the Brunei coach on the bench were the three Brunei import players, all subbed to save their energies for games that had league points attached. Nothing at stake, Dave didn’t seem to mind if Chelsea hit double figures. By the end of the game, there were six Brunei reserve team players on the pitch. The ref blew his whistle to put everyone out of their misery and polite applause trickled from the 19,000 crowd who had parted with ten dollars per head, no discount for children.
Camera in hand, I shook hands with the Chelsea physio.

“Your lads got a bit excited over that Nordin tackle, didn’t they?”

“That number six. Dirty bastard! Our lad’s got internationals for Scotland coming up and dodging two-footed tackles isn’t on his schedule.” Right on cue, the Chelsea player walked past pointing an accusing finger at the sheepish and repentant Nordin.

“Nordin’s a soldier and he’s got jungle manoeuvres at 6am tomorrow,” I offered, hoping for a little compassion.

“Fuckin’ animal belongs there!” spat the Chelsea player. He blocked one nostril with his finger to snot violently on the ground just wide of Nordin’s boot.

Dave and Gullit were walking parallel to each other, too close for comfort. Dave veered off to slap his players on the back while Gullit headed straight for the dressing room. Neither The Menace nor Mark Hughes had played in the game as Gullit experimented with formations. The Menace walked in front of me, sucking eagerly on a sports bottle. I toyed with the idea of congratulating him but thought better of it. He stared at me, dead hard. I still hadn’t genuflected in front of him or begged a photo or an interview and it was killing him. He knew I’d never be a Chelsea fan, not with my accent, not with his haircut.

I looked up at the emptying terraces. Three large Union Jacks were on the wall, a loyal band of expats cheering their compatriots off the pitch. The Chelsea players ran towards them and waved. I looked up at the Brunei flag on the royal dais. I didn’t know the words to the Brunei national anthem but suddenly wished I did.

The Chelsea team did not turn up for the post-match drink, another unexpected invitation to the palace taking precedence. Dave had a quick beer and was off back to his wife and son, as always, the model professional. I went out to one of the illegal clubs by myself and got wasted, desperate to convince myself I was on the right path. Eight cans later, I knew I was.

The next morning, Dave telephoned to invite me to breakfast at the Sheraton. He was smiling and relaxed. I looked and felt a mess. Booze was the best way of suppressing angst over fading hope, finances and libido.

“Coach, do you always look this happy after a six-nil defeat?”

“Years of practice, Stanley, years of practice.” Hajji the team bus driver walked in, ashen-faced.

“What’s up, duck? Has she left you?”

“Very bad, these men very bad,” said Hajji, shaking his head.

“Why, who’s stolen her from you?” Dave laughed.

“Last night, Chelsea in palace, very bad, very bad men.”

“Did the Dutch Cloggie try and seize the throne from the Sultan?” Hajji wasn’t in the mood for laughs. He seemed genuinely upset.

“What happened, Hajji?” I asked. “Or are you going to keep us guessing all morning?”

“Last night all the Chelsea team asked to leave the palace. They insulted Majesties Prince Billah and Prince Malik.”

“Eh up, now that does sound naughty.” Dave’s smile was gone.

“Give me one guess,” I ventured. “The little skinhead, Dennis The Menace?”

Hajji nodded. “Yes, the small one, no hair. That fuck-shit, that little England fuck-shit… he shout to drink beer in front of His Majesties. When he told there no beer he begin speak shit about my country, Brunei. He called it boring, boring, boring Brunei. ‘More boring than fuck-ing Arsenal’ he say to His Majesty.”

“Hajji, you yourself think Brunei is fucking boring and that’s why you piss off to Limbang and sing along to Abba every week.”

“But I love my country. I am a good Bruneian and to say such things to His Highness, this is a terrible thing. This is too much for me!” In trying to suppress his anger, he was now close to tears.

“Was it just The Menace who was thrown out?”

“No, others thrown out with the little fuck-shit and then guards tell team to get on bus. I say no, I no take them. I ask they go back to say sorry to His Majesties. The other small one, Zola, he a very good man. He go back and make everyone say sorry. Only then I take team to hotel.”

“Good for you, Hajji,” said Dave. “You did right, son. What’s the game coming to, eh? What’s happened to the English abroad?”

“Blame the teachers,” I offered. “Everyone else does.”

“Bloody hooligans from top to bottom. You can’t tell the players apart from the yobs these days. Same clothes, same drug habits, same bloody manners of the sewer.”

Dave’s mobile rang. It was Matussin, confirming the news Hajji had just delivered.

“He sounds even more gutted than you, Hajji,” said Dave. “Says he feels personally responsible for the insult.” Hajji looked blank. “Matussin think he make problem, he make big mistake.”

“Why? He was not there,” said the crestfallen bus driver, still distraught.

“Well, yea, but they’re his team. He supports them. He has done since Chelsea beat Leeds… it’s because…” Dave shrugged then gave up trying to explain. I took the mobile to speak with Pengiran Matussin to commiserate.

“Cheer up PM, it’s only a game. They’ll be gone by this morning and you can get back to real football work.”

“I’ve been waiting for this day since 1970. I feel…” His voice trailed off.

“PM, I’ve been there and got the t-shirt. You’re lucky. Only you and a handful of others will get to know about it. At least you won’t have to read it in the newspapers and watch replays of it on the telly for weeks to come.” First Heysel then Hillsborough before the truth came out. Keeping your head down, vilified and ashamed.
 
BAFA never did receive their 7.5%. Although I liked Mathew, I never did contact him or Chelsea Village. The best thing about Brunei football, I realised in my hungover state, was that it was ten thousand miles away from British football.

With the visit of Chelsea, I saw it clearly for the first time: I’d been barking up the wrong league table. The shy, mild-mannered Brunei team was a completely different breed to Chelsea and their pit-bull like. It must pass, despite the lowly status of canines in this predominantly Islamic region; one day soon, making a mockery of their FIFA 192 ranking, Brunei would be the dog’s bollocks of world football.

© Stanley Park 2005

"Better Than Fever Pitch: More balls, more laughs, more giblets... the universal truths of football according to Stanley Park." Brian Reade, Daily Mirror.

"Very, very funny... with fascinating insights into expatriate life." FourFourTwo mag.

FIFA 192 can be bought from Border's in Speke and Amazon online. It will also hopefully have a wider distribution in the UK soon - watch this space for further news!

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